As we drive along the semi-paved roads leading out of Juba, I wonder somewhat despondently how this one-year-old country that has been so deeply affected by conflict can prosper and grow with a literacy rate of just 27 percent. When we reach our destination—a tiny school that caters to poor children who are orphaned or with no family support, we are greeted by a loud welcome song. Children chant in a colorfully decorated hut led by a swaying young teacher whose baby sleeps peacefully on her back.
The vibe in the hut energizes me, and I begin to realize what the resilience of this nation is all about. Some of the facts in a new report on education in South Sudan  start to come alive to me. This country has come a long way within a short period of time, but still has a very long way to go to catch up with the rest of Africa . Some of the children in this hut are among the 700,000 more students who were able to enroll in school between 2005 and 2009.
The findings of the report reflect daunting challenges, to be sure. Though enrollments have increased, a million children remain out of school, the majority of those enrolled do not manage to finish primary school, and the quality of education is low. While there has been recent progress, about 60 percent of primary teachers remain untrained and learning and teaching materials are in short supply. Two out of three students do not even have any paper to write on.
Yet the children in this hut represent hope. They know quite a bit about geography, basic life skills, health and hygiene. We ask them some basic 3rd grade math, reading, and comprehension questions and they show a good understanding of the concepts. Their young teacher, who is from within the community, is one of the many “volunteer” teachers in the education system. The report notes, in fact, that only 60 percent of the 51,000 education staff in 2009 were on government payroll, the rest were volunteers.
An 11-year-old stops us as we are leaving. The teacher translates her question: “What are the opportunities for orphans like us to go into higher primary grades and secondary education, does the government provide scholarships for us?” The question is asked matter-of-factly. This girl has aspirations and wants to know if she can get the support she needs. The question highlights another finding of the report—the urgent need to reduce the rural-urban and gender gaps in education in South Sudan , in particular at the post-primary level.
After two more visits that day, to an adolescent girls initiative “club” that provides life skills and training to adolescent girls; and to a Basic Adult Literacy Program where I meet a 70-year-old man who wants to just learn, my despondence is forgotten, and I feel a sense of exhilaration. To tackle illiteracy, the country does have a flexible system of Alternative Education enrolling more than 200,000 students. This is a vital first step, and South Sudan needs support to take the system to scale and test whether it is working well.
I see now that this one-year-old nation has an intrinsic cheerfulness, has citizens who are ambitious and determined, and who do not give up. I am optimistic that with support, South Sudan can rapidly catch up with countries in Africa that have stronger human development indicators.